Eric Hobsbawm, 1917-2012

Paul Lay reflects on the legacy of the late Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm.

Paul Lay | Published in 01 Oct 2012

Eric HobsbawmThe distinguished Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm died this week at the age of 95.

He was a controversial figure, not least because he maintained his membership of the Communist party despite the Soviet Union's crushing of the Hungarian rising in 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968. As recently as April of this year I wrote a post for this blog, In Defence of Eric Hobsbawm, that confronted some of the more recent accusations thrown his way.

Unusually for a historian, Hobsbawm’s passing made the front page of the broadsheets and was widely reported on television and radio. He was, after all, an Establishment man, who, fashionably, turned down a knighthood only to accept the considerably more prestigious and exclusive title of Companion of Honour. His commitment to Marxist politics was extraordinarily passive and abstract, fundamental to him as a historical method yet all but bankrupt as a means of deciding the future of humanity. His major political achievement was as a pathfinder for New Labour, whose current leader, Ed Miliband, is born of the same North London intellectual milieu.

Hobsbawm’s main achievement as a historian was to marry the European commitment to social science and the vast canvas of the French Annales school with the British narrative tradition. The marriage was most fruitful in his trilogy: The Age of Revolution (1962), The Age of Capital (1975) and The Age of Empire (1987). For me, like so many, it was one of the first serious works of history I ever read and I had no hesitation in passing it on to my son, who read it over the summer holidays. It is probably the best introduction available to Europe post-1789 and, though essentially a synthesis, will continue to be read, even as the continent it describes becomes ever more familiar and ever more marginal.

Richard Vinen once compared Hobsbawm’s evocation of a then exotic Europe to the writings of Elizabeth David, a mischievous analogy, but an accurate one.
Hobsbawm’s best writing is marked by its clarity, a skill he honed while presenting the 8pm lecture at Birkbeck, University of London to students tired after a day’s work in the real world. ‘Could I keep them interested?’ He could and all historians should seek such clarity when writing for the public that pays their wages. Hobsbawm was vocal in his dislikes: he was contemptuous of oral history and deeply suspicious of identity politics, one of the main motors of historical study today. He described himself as ‘militant against mythologisation’ and thought scepticism a key weapon in the historian’s armoury. He was eager, too, to expand history’s remit. At the Anglo-American Conference of 2000 he expressed his regret that he was too old to delve into the ‘Deep History’ pioneered by Daniel Lord Smail’s team at Harvard.

But Hobsbawm’s primary concern was economics, with all the strengths and weaknesses that implies. He neglected religion and morality as a motivator of men and women, ignoring the maxim that ‘man cannot live by bread alone’, perhaps because he had embraced so completely the political religion of Marxism. It seems a significant omission today, especially from the man who told Daniel Snowman, when interviewed for History Today in 1999, that ‘the business of the historian is to remember what others forget’.

Hobsbawm was rated highly in our survey of the historians' historian last year -- he was cited on several occasions by his peers as the most influential historian of the past 60 years, and in our public vote he finished third, after Fernand Braudel and EP Thompson.

From The Archive

Methodism and the Threat of Revolution in Britain

Historians have held that religious Revivalism in the late eighteenth century distracted the mindsof the English from thoughts of Revolution. Eric Hobsbawm expresses a completely different view.